Many political leaders, scientists, educators and parents believe that failure is the best teacher.
Scientists have long understood that the brain has two ways of learning. One is avoidance learning, which is a punishing, negative experience that trains the brain to avoid repeating mistakes. The other is reward-based learning, a positive, reinforcing experience in which the brain feels rewarded for reaching the right answer.
A new MRI study by USC and a group of international researchers has found that having the opportunity to learn from failure can turn it into a positive experience – if the brain has a chance to learn from its mistakes.
“We show that, in certain circumstances, when we get enough information to contextualize the choices, then our brain essentially reaches towards the reinforcement mechanism, instead of turning toward avoidance,” said Giorgio Coricelli, a USC Dornsife associate professor of economics and psychology.
For the study, researchers engaged 28 subjects, each around 26 years old, in a series of questions that challenged them to maximize their gains by providing the right answers. If they chose a wrong answer, they lost money, while right answers helped them earn money.
One trial prompted their brains to respond to getting the wrong answer with avoidance learning. A second trial prompted a reward-based learning reaction, and a third but separate trial tested whether participants had learned from their mistakes, allowing them to review and understand what they got wrong.
In that third round, the participants responded positively, activating areas in their brains that some scientists call the “reward circuit” – or the “ventral striatum.” This experience mimicked the brain’s reward-based learning response – as opposed to an avoidance-learning response, an experience that involves different parts of the brain that together comprise the “anterior insula.”
Coricelli said this process is similar to what the brain experiences when feeling regret: “With regret, for instance, if you have done something wrong, then you might change your behavior in the future,” he said.
Source: UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
People who report having spiritual awareness have it vary throughout the day, rather than being constant, according to a study by University of Connecticut researchers.
The study, which will be presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), found that people had the highest levels of spiritual awareness in the morning and while engaged in activities such as praying, worship, and meditation. Spiritual awareness also was high when people listened to music, read, or exercised. It was low while people were doing work-related activities or playing video games.
Being at work reduced spiritual awareness, which the authors measured as self-reported awareness of God, a higher power, or larger ideal. Those who worked the most appeared to have the lowest awareness. Additionally, the study found that the kind of people who watched the news had higher overall spiritual awareness than those who did not; however, the act of watching the news lowered awareness for everyone.
“What surprised us is how much people vary in awareness of God across the day and across activities,” said Bradley R.E. Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and a co-author of the study. “There is a complex interplay between spiritual awareness and the situation. Sometimes the situation you are in affects your spiritual awareness. Other times your spiritual awareness affects the situation you’re in.”
This study analyzes data from the larger SoulPulse study (SoulPulse.org), which collects data using participants’ smartphones. This experience sampling method allowed researchers to track spiritual awareness in real time during study participants’ normal daily activities.
While the SoulPulse study is ongoing, a total of 2,439 people in the United States took two SoulPulse surveys each day for two weeks between November 2013 and May 2015. Wright and his collaborators used that data for their study.
Each daily survey included 15 to 25 randomly selected questions from a larger pool of 120 daily questions. Although the SoulPulse participants were socially and geographically diverse, the study group is not a nationally representative sample because it was limited to people who owned a smart phone and who self-selected into the study.
Wright’s collaborators included Jaime Kucinskas, a sociologist at Hamilton College and the lead author of the study; graduate student D. Matthew Ray, of the University of Connecticut; and Pastor John C. Ortberg, of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.
The SoulPulse study is funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and Wright is the principle investigator.
Source: AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION
If men take up more of the child-care duties, splitting them equally with their female partners, heterosexual couples have more satisfaction with their relationships and their sex lives, according to new research by Georgia State University sociologists.
The research was presented Aug. 23 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
Daniel L. Carlson, along with graduate students Sarah Hanson and Andrea Fitzroy used data from more than 900 heterosexual couples’ responses in the 2006 Marital Relationship Study (MARS).
The researchers found that when women were responsible for most or all of the child care, both parties reported both the lowest quality relationships and sex lives.
“The important point to be made is that when we’re looking at child care, the difference that we find is really between arrangements where the mother is largely responsible for child care and everything else,” Carlson said.
They concluded that beyond splitting child care responsibilities equally, dads in a heterosexual relationship could take on the majority of child-care responsibility without negative effects on the quality of the couples’ relationships. These couples had just as much sex as couples with egalitarian arrangements, and were just as satisfied with the amount of sex they were having.
“What we find is that there’s generally little to no downside to men being largely responsible for child care,” Carlson said. “We conclude that being an engaged father is very important to men. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t see such a high level of satisfaction. It suggests that father engagement and sharing child care with one’s partner is important to both sexes.”
There is one caveat, however.
Carlson said that when men do the majority of the child care, their female partners exhibited the highest overall satisfaction with their sex lives, but men demonstrated the lowest overall satisfaction with their sex lives.
The research was limited in some respects, including the fact that only heterosexual couples, and no same-sex couples, were studied. Although the researchers examined five different kinds of tasks across three dimensions of child care, the measures of child care were fairly limited, Carlson said, especially when it came to physical child-care tasks.
“We only had one physical task, and that task revolved primarily around playing with the child, including sports and games, but nothing about who feeds or bathes the child,” he said. “The latter physical, instrumental tasks have traditionally been the responsibility of women.”
Carlson also wants to learn more about the mechanisms behind why these couples with more egalitarian child-care arrangements reported better relationship quality and sex lives.
“We are trying to understand what is it about sharing that couples view so positively,” he said.
Source: GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY
In an era where popular culture is increasingly recognized for its impact on lay understanding of health and medicine, few scholars have looked at television’s powerful role in the creation of patient expectations, especially regarding pregnancy and birth.
As part of a larger research project funded by a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant, Danielle Bessett, an assistant professor of sociology in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, examined how women understand their television viewing practices regarding pregnancy and birth.
Her research, which she will present at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), reveals the profound influence that reality TV and fictional programs have on pregnant women’s perceptions of pregnancy and the birthing process, even when they do not necessarily believe they are affected.
In her study, which focuses on a very socioeconomically and racially-diverse group of 64 pregnant women in the greater New York and Connecticut metropolitan area over a two-year period, Bessett describes their pregnancy-related use of popular media — especially television — and their perspectives about how popular media affects their expectations for pregnancy.
Twenty-eight women (44 percent of the sample) indicated that they had watched at least some reality television that related to pregnancy. Women volunteered television reality shows such as TLC’s “Baby Story” and “Maternity Ward” and Discovery Health’s “Birth Day,” when asked what television shows affected their expectations for pregnancy. Women who worked outside the home were least likely to describe watching these programs, while women who were unemployed or cared for children at home were more likely to report pregnancy-related viewing.
Women’s social class, as measured through their education levels, played a role in how they described their use of television. Bessett says the more educated group downplayed the significance of television in their expectations for pregnancy.
“We found clear class differences in how women saw television influencing their pregnancy knowledge,” says Bessett. “When asked what part reality shows or fictional TV played on their learning or education about pregnancy and the birthing process, the groups professed two entirely different perspectives.”
On the one end of the spectrum, Bessett says highly educated women who watched tended to disavow reality and fictional television as information sources for themselves and initially framed those programs as merely a tool for entertainment and for educating young children about reproduction.
On the other end, women with lower educational attainment were more likely to perceive television as an alternative to traditional childbirth education. Women who were more disadvantaged tended to discuss reality programs as part of a comprehensive approach to information gathering. They saw reality TV as one of many sources that they could take advantage of and basically did not rule any potential source of information out. In many instances, these women evaluated the reality shows critically, assessing their credibility.
According to Bessett, existing research reveals that, on average, reality shows portray births with many more medical interventions than typically happen in real life at the population level.
“So there is a strong sense that what women are getting from those reality shows is a more skewed and medicalized view,” says Bessett. Although there is less research on fictional television and Bessett’s study did not assess the content of fictional programs, Bessett hypothesizes that these programs are even more distorted: “My best guess is that they are even more dramatically scripted to keep people’s attention and kind of ramp up the emotions of the viewer.”
Bessett’s study results showed that many women cited overly dramatized medical scenes as they expressed fears about how their own births would take place. Other examples of media’s influence included disillusionments in their own birth processes in relation to what they saw though television.
As it turns out, after looking closely at the data, Bessett found that a majority of the women she interviewed — even those who said they did not get pregnancy information from television or watch reality programs and the highly-educated women who denied the influence of television — made references to multiple instances in which they formed impressions about pregnancy and birth after years of exposure to representations of pregnancy and birth on television. Bessett developed the concept of the “cultural mythologies of pregnancy” to capture the ways television, film, and word of mouth become part of the cultural milieu in which all of them operate and then become “just the way things are.”
While television was just one component of these mythologies, Bessett says it is important.
“Hearing women — even women who said TV had no influence on them — trace their expectations back to specific television episodes was one of the few ways that we can see the power of these mythologies,” she explains.
Bessett adds that many women mentioned pregnancy representations they had seen long before they got pregnant, and those powerful impressions ultimately stayed with them.
“If we believe that television works most insidiously or effectively on people when they don’t realize that it has power, then we can actually argue that the more highly-educated women who were the most likely to say that television really didn’t have any effect on them, may in the end, actually be more subject to the power of television than were women who saw television as an opportunity to learn about birth and who recognized TV’s influence,” says Bessett.
In addition to broader class differences in how Americans value television, Bessett believes one of the reasons that more educated women denied television’s influence may be their desire to be seen as following doctor’s orders and valuing science.
“This research implies that many women underestimate or underreport the extent to which their expectations of pregnancy and birth are shaped by popular media,” says Bessett. “This important new awareness suggests that scholars must not only focus on patients’ professed methods for seeking information, but also explore the unrecognized role that television plays in their lives.”
Source: AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION
Some depressed patients may be hoping for answers from their therapists, but a new study suggests questions may be the key.
Researchers examined how cognitive therapy for depression achieves its positive effects. Their study is the first to show that depressed patients see substantial improvements in their depressive symptoms when their therapists use a technique called “Socratic questioning.”
These are a series of guided questions in which the therapist asks a patient to consider new perspectives on themselves and their place in the world.
“People with depression can get stuck in a negative way of thinking,” said Justin Braun, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at The Ohio State University.
“Socratic questioning helps patients examine the validity of their negative thoughts and gain a broader, more realistic perspective.”
Cognitive therapy is an evidence-based treatment that helps patients to reduce their depression and protects against future depressive episodes.
Many other studies have focused on how the relationship between the patient and the therapist may foster a positive therapeutic response, said study co-author Daniel Strunk, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State.
“We found that Socratic questioning was predictive of symptom improvements above and beyond the therapeutic relationship — the variable that has been most examined in previous studies,” Strunk said.
The study appeared in a recent issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.
The study involved 55 patients who participated in a 16-week course of cognitive therapy for depression at the Ohio State Depression Treatment and Research Clinic.
The patients completed a questionnaire at the beginning of each session that measured their depressive symptoms.
Researchers analyzed video recordings of the first three sessions for each of the patients and estimated how often the therapist used Socratic questioning techniques.
Sessions in which therapists used more Socratic questioning tended to be followed by greater improvements in patients’ depressive symptoms.
“Patients are learning this process of asking themselves questions and being skeptical of their own negative thoughts,” Braun said. “When they do, they tend to see a substantial reduction in their depressive symptoms.”
For example, a patient may tell his therapist that he is a total failure and life isn’t worth living because his marriage ended in divorce.
A therapist may ask a series of Socratic questions to challenge that belief: Is everyone who experienced divorce a failure? Can you think of anyone for whom that is not true? How does being divorced seem to translate into being a failure as person for you? What evidence is there that you have succeeded, and thus not been a “total failure?”
The goal is to help patients learn to use the same type of questions on themselves, Strunk said.
“We think that one of the reasons that cognitive therapy has such enduring positive effects is that patients learn to question their negative thoughts, and continue doing so even after the treatment ends,” he said.
“They find out that they may be overlooking information that is contrary to their negative thoughts. They often aren’t looking at the whole situation, positive and negative.”
The researchers are continuing their research with new patients at the Depression Treatment and Research Clinic. One of the aims of the new studies will be to characterize for which patients the use of Socratic questioning may be most effective.
Source: OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
Do you ever notice how stress and mental frustration can affect your physical abilities? When you are worried about something at work, do you find yourself more exhausted at the end of the day? This phenomenon is a result of the activation of a specific area of the brain when we attempt to participate in both physical and mental tasks simultaneously.
Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, conducted a study evaluating the interaction between physical and mental fatigue and brain behavior.
The study showed that when we attempt mental tasks and physical tasks at the same time, we activate specific areas, called prefrontal cortex (PFC), in our brain. This can cause our bodies to become fatigued much sooner than if we were solely participating in a physical task.
Typically, endurance and fatigue have been examined solely from a physical perspective, focused primarily on the body and muscles used to complete a specific task. However, the brain is just like any other biological tissue, it can be overused and can suffer from fatigue.
“Existing examinations of physical and mental fatigue has been limited to evaluating cardiovascular, muscular and biomechanical changes,” said Mehta. “The purpose of this study was to use simultaneous monitoring of brain and muscle function to examine the impact on the PFC while comparing the changes in brain behavior with traditional measures of fatigue.”
According to Mehta, study findings show that there were lower blood oxygen levels in the PFC following combined physical and mental fatigue compared to that of just physical fatigue conditions. Through simultaneous examination of the brain and muscle function it is apparent that when participating in highly cognitive tasks, brain resources are divided which may accelerate the development of physical fatigue.
It is critical that researchers consider the brain as well as the body when examining fatigue development and its impact on the body. Interdisciplinary work that combines neurocognitive principles with physiological and biomechanical outcomes can provide us with a comprehensive understanding of what is happening to the body when we perform our daily activities.
“Not a lot of people see the value in looking at both the brain and the body together,” said Mehta. “However, no one does purely physical or mental work; they always do both.”
This study was published online in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Co-author of the study is Raja Parasuraman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University in Virginia.
Source: TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
Playing Tetris for as little as three minutes at a time can weaken cravings for drugs, food and activities such as sex and sleeping by approximately one fifth, according to new research.
In the first test of its kind to study people in natural settings outside of a laboratory, participants were monitored for levels of craving and prompted to play the block-shifting puzzle game at random intervals during the day.
Psychologists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, Australia, found that playing Tetris interfered with desires not only for food, but also for drugs, including cigarettes, alcohol and coffee, and other activities. The benefits of playing Tetris were maintained over the seven-day study period.
In a report published in the international journal Addictive Behaviors, the authors say playing the game could help people to manage their cravings, and they have recommended further research, including testing people dependent on drugs.
Professor Jackie Andrade, from the School of Psychology and the Cognition Institute at Plymouth University, said: “Playing Tetris decreased craving strength for drugs, food, and activities from 70% to 56%. This is the first demonstration that cognitive interference can be used outside the lab to reduce cravings for substances and activities other than eating.
“We think the Tetris effect happens because craving involves imagining the experience of consuming a particular substance or indulging in a particular activity. Playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support that imagery; it is hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time.”
During the experiment, 31 undergraduates, aged 18-27, were prompted seven times a day via text message to report on any cravings they were feeling. They were also encouraged to report cravings proactively, independently of the prompts. Fifteen members of the group were required to play Tetris on an iPod for three minutes, before reporting their craving levels again.
Craving was recorded in 30% of occasions, most commonly for food and non-alcoholic drinks, which were reported on nearly two-thirds of those occasions. Twenty-one percent of cravings were for substances categorised as drugs, including coffee, cigarettes, wine and beer, and 16% were for miscellaneous activities such as sleeping, playing videogames, socialising with friends, and sexual intercourse. Food cravings tended to be slightly weaker than those in the other categories.
“The impact of Tetris on craving was consistent across the week and on all craving types,” said Professor Jon May, also of Plymouth University. “People played the game 40 times on average but the effect did not seem to wear off. This finding is potentially important because an intervention that worked solely because it was novel and unusual would have diminishing benefits over time as participants became familiar with it.”
“As a support tool, Tetris could help people manage their cravings in their daily lives and over extended time periods,” added Professor Andrade.
Source: UNIVERSITY OF PLYMOUTH
The explosion in worldwide coffee consumption in the past two decades has generally not benefitted farmers of coffee beans in poorer nations along the equator.
A University of Kansas (KU) researcher studying trade and globalization has found that the shift to “technified” coffee production in the 1970s and 1980s has created harsher economic and ecological consequences for heavy coffee-producing nations, such as Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Vietnam and Ethiopia.
“Historically, coffee has been exploited by the West in various ways, because it’s consumed in rich countries, and grown in poor ones,” said Alexander Myers, a KU doctoral candidate in sociology.
Myers will present his study, “Trading in Crisis: Coffee, Ecological Rift, and Ecologically Unequal Exchange,” at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The paper examines how the shift to technified coffee for mass production and to meet greater demand hurt peasant farmers of those countries and had a major ecological influence there, especially with the amount of water required for the crops.
Myers said the shift to technified coffee production changed the process to look more like traditional large wheat or soybean farms in the United States as opposed to allowing coffee plants to grow in smaller shaded areas. The latter process used much less water, for example, and it allowed farmers to diversify their crops and use their land to plant other crops as well.
Technified production requires farmers to exclusively grow coffee.
“Especially these peasant farmers who maybe have a small plot of land, they rely almost exclusively on coffee sales to sustain themselves,” Myers said.
Major drops in commodities prices of coffee beans to around $0.50 per pound in 2001 nearly wiped out economies of those nations, for example.
“That really hit the famers hard, and it caused a lot of these family farms that have historically relied on coffee to keep themselves afloat,” Myers said.
The technification of coffee production also required a new type of coffee bean to grow effectively, but the process also required much more water to produce. Some ecological researchers have estimated the average cup of coffee takes 140 liters of water to grow.
“It’s very taxing environmentally,” Myers said.
The fair trade movement in the past two decades has helped to offset somewhat both the economic and ecological changes, especially for poorer farmers in developing countries. Myers said such movements could help raise awareness especially among coffee drinkers in Western nations.
“What we do matters. The choices that we make, the products that we buy have an impact on somebody,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a good impact. Sometimes it’s negligible or negative. But they do have impacts, so just trying to keep that in mind is important, especially in researching what is behind these consumption choices.”
Source: UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS
For American women, a book club membership means more than having status as a reader, as it might pay dividends to them in the dating field as well.
A University of Kansas (KU) researcher as part of a study on gendered sexuality compared women’s book clubs in Colorado and Ireland and made the finding regarding how the women in each country used the role of reading in romantic relationships.
“American women utilized their status as readers and book club members to increase their popularity in the dating field and explained that they would never date or marry a non-reader,” said Christy Craig, a KU doctoral candidate in sociology. “Irish women did not find this as relevant, and many told me they joined book clubs because their significant others did not spend much time reading.”
Craig will present her findings through the paper, “Not Just a Book Club: Gendered Sexual Identity Through the Lens of Women’s Book Clubs,” as part of the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
She attended 36 book club meeting and interviewed 53 women from ages 19 to 80 as part of the project. Separate from the finding about how women view book clubs and the role of romantic relationships, both American and Irish women utilized reading to develop a sense of self, to foster social and cultural capital and to construct their own sexual identities.
“Conversations at book club meetings served to reinforce women’s sense of self as well as provided a place for women to negotiate their sexuality, particularly through conversations about what kinds of women were being portrayed in books read by the group,” Craig said.
One book that came up in every interview was the popular erotic romance novel by E.L. James “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“None of the women read Fifty Shades in their book clubs, but it was regularly discussed in that context,” Craig said. “Overall, women I talked to about Fifty Shades felt conflicted.”
On one hand, they felt the opportunity for women to access literature about sex in a more public way was indicative of great forward progress for women, she said.
“In this way, women saw possibility for empowerment as they felt more comfortable openly reading about sex and sexuality,” Craig said.
For instance, seeing other women at the doctor’s office reading the same thing put them more at ease, and they began having conversations with one another about a dialogue they would not have openly admitted to reading before.
“At the same time, many felt it was not truly as empowering as they wanted it to be, or as they hoped women’s erotic fiction would be,” Craig said.
The paper is part of Craig’s larger dissertation project, and is aimed at using a comparative sociological examination of contemporary women’s fiction and its readers to better understand how women construct sexuality amidst gendered cultural norms.
Source: UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS